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Botanic gardens play a vital role in the development of trade, agriculture and medicine worldwide

Few botanic gardens existed when Kew was founded in 1759, but now there are more than 2,500. Sara Oldfield highlights their vital work around the world.
Visitors have been enjoying the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, one of the earliest botanic gardens, for years (Image: RBG Kew)

Over the centuries, botanic gardens have played vital roles in the development of trade, agriculture and medicine around the world.

Today, millions of people in many different countries visit botanic gardens, enjoying a leisurely stroll among the plants and picking up ideas for their own garden.

Behind the scenes, crucially important work takes place in the herbaria, greenhouses, labs and seed banks associated with these gardens, helping to ensure that new food supplies and medicines are available in the future.

Earliest botanic gardens

Throughout their history, botanic gardens have been repositories for plant diversity. Plants gathered from the wild are kept as living reference collections that can be used for scientific research, for the development of plants for food, medicine and ornamental horticulture, and increasingly for conservation, providing an insurance policy against the loss of plants in the wild.

The earliest botanic gardens date from the 16th century, having been founded during the Renaissance. These gardens had a strong emphasis on the study of medicinal plants, as most drugs were then derived from plants.

It wasn’t until 300 years later that medicine and botany evolved as separate disciplines. Botanic, or physic, gardens were needed to train medical practitioners in the identification and use of different plant species.

The first true botanic garden was established in Italy at the University of Pisa in 1543. Luca Ghini, a professor of medicine, developed the garden and a herbarium so that both living and preserved plants could be used to teach his students.

Colonial expansion

Its beds of poisonous and aromatic plants, succulents and wetland species also attracted leading scientists of the day. It wasn’t long before other botanic gardens were established across Europe.

In the era of colonial expansion, botanic gardens were founded as centres for testing new crops in different parts of the world.

The development of quinine as a malaria remedy, the establishment of rubber and teak plantations, the growth of cocoa, tea and spice production for expanding empires were all facilitated by botanic gardens.

At the same time, such gardens became important as places of beauty, where plants could be celebrated and displayed – exotic bulbs from Turkey and South Africa and cacti from the Americas.

Over time, magnificent glasshouses were constructed to display tropical palms and orchids from the jungles of Asia and Africa. Giant waterlilies from South America drew large crowds to the botanic gardens of Australia, the United States and Europe.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, established 250 years ago, provided an inspirational model through its scientific exchange, horticultural expertise and garden landscaping.

Global gardens

Botanic gardens today retain strong links with the discovery and study of economically important plants. There are now more than 2,500 botanic gardens around the world, with representation in nearly every country.

Ghini’s garden in Pisa continues to this day and new botanic gardens are flourishing in China, Thailand, Turkey and the Middle East. More than half the world’s botanic gardens have been established in the past 50 years.

Conservation solutions worldwide

Botanic gardens have many different roles, but increasingly the conservation of threatened plants is becoming the most important. The major threats to wild plants include unsustainable exploitation of useful species, either on a local scale or for international trade, the impact of introduced invasive species that can overwhelm fragile floras, habitat modification and destruction, and increasingly the impact of climate change.

Faced with such an onslaught on wild plants, a range of conservation solutions is needed, and botanic gardens are rising to the challenge. The need for botanic gardens to co-ordinate their work in plant conservation was recognised in the 1970s. During that decade of growing environmental awareness, two significant conferences on plant conservation were organised by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, bringing together experts from around the world.

The Botanic Gardens Conservation Co-ordinating Body was established in 1979, and by 1990 an independent organisation, Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), had evolved. From a small office in the grounds of Kew, BGCI continues to serve as the main co-ordinating body for botanic gardens across the world. It now includes more than 550 member gardens in more than 110 countries.

Individual botanic gardens and BGCI have worked together to develop global policies to support plant conservation. International agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity provide protection for biodiversity worldwide, but even when this came into force in 1992 botanists remained concerned that plants were missing out in terms of conservation action and allocation of resources. A call for action resulted in the creation of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC) in 2002, with the aim of reducing plant diversity loss for the benefit of all.

Cataloguing the world's flora

Progress on some of the ambitious goals of the GSPC has been remarkable, whereas others have proved more difficult to achieve. Experts at Kew, Missouri Botanical Garden and the New York Botanical Garden, among others, are developing a full working list of the world’s flora, which will be completed by 2010.

This will be invaluable as a baseline for understanding and conserving plant diversity.

Saving endangered species

It is likely that the aim of 60 per cent of all threatened plant species being held in ex situ collections, such as botanic gardens, will also be reached. Already, 12,000 of the 33,000 plant species recorded as globally threatened are known to be in botanic garden collections, where they can be used both for conservation and for raising visitors’ awareness of the importance of preserving plant diversity.

The target of 10 per cent of threatened plants being included in recovery and restoration programmes will, however, remain an aspiration for beyond 2010.

Repairing damaged ecosystems using plant material conserved in botanic gardens is becoming increasingly important. Ex situ collections (those held outside a plant’s natural habitat) provide a valuable source of plant material for re-introduction of threatened species into the wild and for the restoration of damaged or degraded habitats.

Such collections also facilitate research on endangered plants, which is often necessary for the development of successful species recovery programmes.

Botanic gardens have adapted over the centuries in response to changing needs, their development reflecting scientific advances and broader changes in society. The earliest botanic gardens were devoted to the teaching and study of medicinal plants, and subsequently botanic gardens became hugely important in the introduction of new economic plant species and the development of tropical agriculture.

The conservation role of botanic gardens has rapidly increased in importance over the past 30 years, with growing awareness of the loss of biodiversity around the world.

Today, botanic gardens are broadening their relevance once again to help tackle global issues of sustainable development, poverty alleviation and climate change.

And, now that more than half the world’s people live in urban areas, botanic gardens provide an increasingly important opportunity for us all to connect with the natural world.

Author: Sara Oldfield

Kew magazine


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